Successful station revitalization projects are community driven, often drawing on existing governmental and civic resources. This is true in Texarkana, a city on the Texas-Arkansas border served by the daily Texas Eagle (Chicago-Texarkana-San Antonio-(Los Angeles)). Amtrak customers use part of the historic Union Station complex anchoring the southern end of downtown. When stopped at the station, the train actually straddles the state and municipal lines.
Renewing a Community Gateway
In spring 2023, community members taking part in a program sponsored by the non-profit Leadership Texarkana completed a station beautification project. Why focus on station improvements? “It’s an entryway to our city, it’s our multimodal center, and the train is a unique way for visitors and residents to experience Texarkana,” says Vashil Fernandez, a Leadership Texarkana “Class of 2022” participant. Fernandez is also the director of planning and community development for the city of Texarkana, Texas.
Fernandez and his colleagues on the self-styled “Amtrak Station Exterior Beautification Team” planned and executed a vision over a year-and-a-half that included:
- Power washing the station area.
- Restriping the parking spaces.
- Hanging festive string lighting.
- Installing a welcome mural visible from the platform and train.
- Planting new landscaping.
- Painting the part of the building used by Amtrak customers.
Members of the Amtrak Station Exterior Beautification Team from the Leadership Texarkana Class of 2022 included:
- Toni Braley
- Justin Copeland
- Del Doughty
- Val de la Garza
- Vashil Fernandez
- Tucker Keeney
- John Moran
- Jennifer Smith
- Wendy Stotts
These improvements were made possible through $20,000 of in-kind services and financial donations from local businesses, the two municipal governments and citizens.
Although Amtrak serves the Texarkana station, it does not own the building or platform. Amtrak Government Affairs staff, who work with communities across the country interested in improving their stations, advised the project team as planning got underway.
Station as a Downtown Landmark
The station renewal fits into a broader downtown revitalization initiative that seeks to fill empty buildings and storefronts with new residential, commercial and cultural activity while strengthening connections among existing anchors including the train station, farmers’ market, historic Perot Theatre – a hub for the performing arts, and the Regional Arts Center that offers exhibits, classes and other activities.
A significant project nearing completion in summer 2023 is the rehabilitation of the former Hotel Grim two blocks north of the train station. Built in 1925, it welcomed travelers until 1990, but then stood empty and deteriorating for three decades. Using a mix of private funds, and federal, state and city grants and tax credits, developers have converted the historic landmark into apartments that are affordable-rate housing.
The intense focus on station improvements also fostered ongoing discussions between the two Texarkanas about working together to pursue a joint development of the largely vacant Union Station. This would involve purchasing the building from its private owner.
In line with that effort, Amtrak plans to construct a modern new facility to serve Texarkana. Its passenger platform would end close to the historic depot, allowing for easy access between the Amtrak station and the redeveloped Union Station. This Amtrak investment in the community would be another element helping to spur private sector revitalization efforts in downtown Texarkana.
Advancing a Station Revitalization Project
“It really takes a community coming together to get things going. Sometimes these types of projects, like our Amtrak Beautification Project, take time, but progress can still happen through small steps,” says Fernandez. “In Texarkana, we focus on ‘strategic doing.’ We assemble workgroups whose members have the focus and skills needed to keep a project moving forward.”
Leadership Texarkana has been instrumental in building the civic infrastructure underpinning local renewal efforts for more than 40 years. Created by the chamber of commerce and now independent, Leadership Texarkana runs programs with the aim of developing leaders who can contribute to the cities’ continued growth and development as a regional business, retail, medical and manufacturing hub.
“In Texarkana, we focus on ‘strategic doing.’ We assemble workgroups whose members have the focus and skills needed to keep a project moving forward.”Vashil Fernandez, director of planning and community development, city of Texarkana, Texas.
One of the organization’s signature programs is the annual Leadership Texarkana class bringing together about three dozen aspiring leaders from the government, business and civic sectors. They represent various backgrounds and professional levels to ensure a good mix of viewpoints and experiences.
Leadership Texarkana holds a two-day retreat as the program gets underway, and during the succeeding nine months, participants take part in monthly day-long sessions to build their leadership capacity and gain perspectives on regional issues such as economic development, industry, social services and quality of life topics.
Fernandez, who relocated to Texarkana a few years ago, applied for the 2022 class because he wanted to learn more about how the city and bi-state area worked. Since Texarkana straddles Texas and Arkansas, which can have different laws and regulations, understanding the commonalities and differences gives a better understanding of what’s needed to craft successful regional revitalization.
Posted August 28, 2023. Images courtesy of Vashil Fernandez.